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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Our conversations this week about email may mystify some of the people who use it. That's because we've stressed that email is not necessarily private. Your most embarrassing work email especially could get swept up in some lawsuit or investigation. That warning could seem a little out of date to people who encrypt sensitive emails.

For years now they've essentially been sending their messages in code and they wonder why other people don't do the same. NPR's Martin Kaste reports from Seattle.

MARTIN KASTE: Just how vulnerable is email? I brought my laptop to this Seattle Internet cafe to find out. As soon as I connected to the local wi-fi, two guys off in the corner with their own laptops started grabbing my emails out of mid-air.

Mr. ERIC JOHANSEN (Computer Security Specialist): This is a copy of an email that you received here introducing baby Nora. Here's the email address, who sent the email - Rebecca - here's the kid's name and when it was born, etc., etc.

KASTE: That's Eric Johansen. He's in the computer security business. He doesn't seem to like the word hacker, but suffice it to say that Eric spells his first name with a 3. His colleague, Marcus Hodges, shows me more of the information that they've intercepted.

Mr. MARCUS HODGES (Computer Security Specialist): It was downloading your address book and I happened to be catching part of that.

KASTE: So you got part of my address book?

Mr. HODGES: Yeah.

KASTE: Oh, that's nice.

It's people like this, people who understand computers, who often use encryption. Hodges guesses that he encrypts about five percent of his emails.

Mr. HODGES: Anytime I am sending something that I care about that identifies me as a person or I just don't want other people reading, absolutely I do it.

KASTE: But you don't need some kind of obscure hacker's tool to encrypt your email. Hodges uses a free plug-in that goes with his email program. There are plenty of encryption systems out there. You can find a few of them listed on our Web site, NPR.org. Most are versions of something called public key encryption. To learn how to use public keys, I placed an Internet call to Phil Zimmerman.

(Soundbite of beeps)

KASTE: Hello?

Mr. PHIL ZIMMERMAN: Hi, Martin.

KASTE: Hi.

Zimmerman is one of the godfathers of email encryption. He even rates a passing mention in "The Da Vinci Code," for whatever that's worth. In the early 1990s he released something called PGP, encryption software for the masses. I give it a try while we're talking online. I write Zimmerman an email and then encrypt it using his public key. It's a code that he can give to anybody who asks for it.

Now, as this winds its way to Menlo Park, if some devious hacker grabbed this en route, what would he see?

Mr. ZIMMERMAN: He would see a seemingly random set of characters.

KASTE: When Zimmerman gets the email, he decrypts it using the other part of that code, the private key.

Mr. ZIMMERMAN: It's like having two keys to your front door. One of them unlocks the door and the other one locks the door.

KASTE: It wasn't always a given that email encryption would be so readily available. In the 1990s the Feds investigated Zimmerman for making uncrackable easy to use encryption available to foreigners. But these days public key encryption programs are freely available all over the Internet. Even the Microsoft Outlook on your computer has a corporate form of encryption built right in.

And yet hardly anybody ever encrypts personal email. Zimmerman finds this disappointing.

Mr. ZIMMERMAN: If nobody does anything about it, then we'll slowly lose our privacy. We are losing our privacy.

KASTE: Some experts encryption hasn't caught on because there isn't a single standard. Other blames Microsoft for making the Outlook version so hard to figure out.

But there may be a simpler explanation. Behind her laptop at yet another Internet cafe, Angela Patino says email privacy just doesn't matter that much.

Ms. ANGELA PATINO: I mean, it's weird thinking that somebody can look at your private stuff. But it doesn't really bother me that much.

KASTE: And at the ThinkPad at the next table, Kevin Drexel goes even further. He says he tries to live a life that's fit for public scrutiny, and that includes his email.

Mr. KEVIN DREXEL (Internet Cafe Customer): I've kind of made being a public person just a personal policy. Just a rule for living is in a way that you wouldn't mind if it was all public information.

KASTE: Compare that attitude to the outrage our parents would have felt at the idea of someone steaming open their letters. It would seem that instead of changing email, by encrypting it we've allowed email to change us.

Martin Kaste, NPR News, Seattle.

INSKEEP: And we'll continue our series tomorrow with a look at email-free Fridays.

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